Friday, 10 September 2010

Medieval and modern science - the intellectual as a (mostly) harmless maniac

I'm reading a thought-provoking book called God's Philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, by James Hannam.

It takes the form a compilation of stories about medieval scientific - or perhaps more specifically technical - breakthroughs.

These include the compass, paper and printing, stirrups, gunpower and cannons, spectacles (and lenses), the windmill, mechanical clock and blast furnace.


What this impressive list confirms is that a formal scientific structure (such as the Royal Society or specific scientific societies, specialized scientific training at school and university, distinctive scientific modes of communication such as journals) is *not* necessary for scientific progress and the spread of scientific ideas.

Furthermore, the fact that the people responsible for these many major breakthroughs are unknown, suggests that scientific progress is possible without specific mechanisms to reward success. These breakthroughs happened 'despite' the anonymity of the people who achieved them.

An individual sense of vocation, and presumably a small 'invisible college' of fellow seekers to notice the breakthrough and spread the word, seems to suffice.


Hannam puts considerable store on the importance of universities, but from what he says most university activity seems at best irrelevant and at worst actively misleading.

Consequently, I would suggest that universities seem to have had little role in promoting medieval science except in terms of 1. providing a basic, what we would think of as 'high school' level of education in mathematics and a few aspects of natural science found in the ancient authors such as Aristotle; and 2. providing a professional livelihood for the handful of scientists by employing them as monks, priests, teachers, physicians and lawyers.

On the other hand, it is clear that (in so far as they were not occupied with Roman Catholic theology and philosophy - and also presumably with law; although this is not covered here) the universities were mostly occupied with branches of knowledge such as astrology, 'medicine' (ie the study of Galen and other ancient authorities) and alchemy. Things we would now regard as bogus.

In other words, medieval universities were *mostly* concerned with the teaching of abstract 'nonsense' - at any rate the validity of their knowledge is a very secondary matter.

The example of medicine, and its importance and prestige in the middle ages, shows that the form of knowledge is all important compared with its validity. What is striking is that medicine was one of the foundational university subjects, and one of the higher professions, purely on the basis of its having an abundance of ancient texts. The fact that this knowledge was bogus (in terms of real world validity) made no difference whatsoever.

This is presumably the natural state of affairs for humans - higher learning is nonsense, and is known to be nonsense by practical people.


Intellectuals - the people who have learned the nonsense, and who believe it - are respected (somewhat) for knowing a lot of elegant stuff; but sensible people nonetheless regard these savants as crazy crackpots who must be held on a short leash, carefully controlled, and at all costs kept away from serious situations.

This seems to be the commonest attitude to intellectuals in the middle ages and most societies - and it seems a lot closer to the right attitude than the one which is prevalent nowadays.


It strikes me that the universities nowadays have almost returned to the medieval state in terms of content - since almost everything taught in modern universities is nonsense with zero validity. In other words, the average 'fact' taught in a modern university curriculum is untrue - worthless at best and actively misleading more often than not.

If this is a similarity between ancient and modern, a difference is that in medieval universities the curriculum was highly purposive and uniform: students had to learn, to memorize, vast amounts of stuff; and to learn specific skills (such as logical disputation; or the construction of arguments, letters and essays).

By contrast modern universities teach students nothing in particular/ whatever they fancy (probably no two modern students in the UK or the USA ever study exactly the same curriculum) using easy-to-cheat evaluation procedures with no obvious purpose or outcome. Modern students emerge from higher education without mastery of any particular body of knowledge and without any new specific skills.

Also another difference is that most modern universities do not teach *abstract* nonsense, but concrete nonsense. This may be due to the limited powers of abstraction to be found in most faculty and students.


So, universities seem to be essentially, through most of their history, about teaching a small amount of useful stuff embedded and lost in a much larger amount of nonsense: the elite universities teach complex, abstract nonsense and the mass of universities teach simple, concrete nonsense.

And very little of this has anything to do with anything.

However, for a very brief period, just a few generations, probably between about 1850 and 1950 and only in a few countries - universities taught a much higher proportion of true and useful material - knowledge that was validated in the real world.

As a consequence intellectuals aquired an undeserved reputation for being useful and trustworthy.

However that era is by now quite a long time ago. Clearly the period up to about 1950 was a temporary blip in the history of universities, an abberation which has now been set right: normal service (i.e. purveying nonsense and churning-out dangerously misguided savants) has been resumed since the 1960s.

It is long overdue that society needs to return to its medieval attitude towards intellectuals; an attitude which regards them as (mostly) harmless maniacs, treats them with amused tolerance, keeps their prevalence down to the small number required for societal functionality - and keeps them away from power as carefully as we keep toddlers away from fireworks.


  1. I put it to you, m'Lud, that the appointment of Newton to run The Mint was an early example of taking an intellectual seriously, and rightly so. Of course, he was much the cleverest bloke in recorded history, so bore little resemblance to most intellectuals.

  2. "This may be due to the limited powers of abstraction to be found in most faculty and students."

    I was surprised to recently learn that professors can have IQs as low as 100! Given this, your remark is not surprising.